Play Therapy – Prescriptive & Non-Prescriptive


by Craig Hartman* –

With early diagnosis, childhood mental illnesses is being treated and managed successfully. Play therapy is growing in popularity as a method for treating children with mental disorders.


What is Play Therapy?

Play therapy builds on the natural way that children learn through a trained play therapist. Play therapists can assess and understand children’s play while providing them with tools the children can use to deal with emotions and find better solutions for problems.

Play is fundamental in the health and well being of all of us. Play is an activity that elevates spirits, expands self-expression and relieves stress. For children, play allows them to develop the skills and roles they will need for survival into adulthood.


Non-Prescriptive Play Therapy

Non-prescriptive play therapy covers a range of therapeutic techniques that allow children to communicate at their own pace without feeling as if they are being questioned. They often include board games, art and storytelling.

Therapists have used this type of play therapy for decades. Therapists such as Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Margaret Lowenfield wrote about the use of psychoanalysis and play therapy for children in the late 1920s and early 1930s.


 Prescriptive Play Therapy

Prescriptive play therapy is a more formal, structured type of therapy that is prescribed to suit the specific needs of a child. Unlike non-prescriptive play therapy, the play is directed by the therapist and not the child. It is more child-like but led by a therapist so that the play selected will be the most effective for a specific problem or symptom.

Children with autism spectrum disorders and ADHD respond well to prescriptive play therapy, as do children with learning difficulties or developmental delays. In addition, children who have suffered abuse, bereavement and loss or who have emotional issues often benefit from prescriptive play therapy.


How It Works

Prescriptive play therapy begins with an assessment that determines the child’s strengths, limitations, developmental stages, family circumstances and other factors. The therapist then prescribes a particular intervention that has proven effective for the child’s disorder. Parents and other family members are often included in the process as many childhood mental disorders are connected to issues within the home.

Sometimes, a child’s mental issue may be a symptom of a problem at home while in others the family has been disrupted by the problems the child exhibits at home. It has been shown that children heal faster when the entire family works together.


Types of Play Therapy

There are many types of play therapy available to help children and families with mental disorders. One that is becoming popular among therapists for the treatment of children with ADHD is adventure-based therapy. Researchers have found that rock climbing provides an interactive way for children to learn better problem-solving skills, as therapists teach children to relate obstacles they face in life to each obstacle on the wall.

Using the safety and support features as a metaphor for the support a child gets from others, the therapist shows the child that they do not have to feel inadequate or like a failure. This type of therapy requires participation by the family as there are several steps involved before the child is ready for the rock climbing exercise that help build communication and feelings of support necessary to make the therapy a success.



Executive Function Skills

One thing that adventure activities do for children with some mental disorders, especially ADHD, is to improve the executive function skills which children with ADHD and other learning disabilities are unable to access. These skills include:

  • Planning
  • Avoiding repetition of mistakes
  • Anticipating the future
  • Sense of time
  • Paying attention
  • Staying awake
  • Finishing tasks
  • Controlling emotions
  • Ability to internalize thoughts
  • Organizing information
  • Correcting errors
  • Performance when activity is not rehearsed or planned



Adults who suffer from some mental disorders like ADHD and Asperger find that rock climbing gives them a sense of safety and precision and provides them with a sense of control. The same is true of children who develop a sense of achievement as they succeed in climbing.

It’s recommended that parents of children with ADHD use indoor climbing walls as natural rock climbing can be dangerous, especially when a child is unable to focus their attention for long. Because small children don’t grasp the concept of achievement that is not tangible, therapists place rewards, such as candy, on the holds to give the child a reward they will understand.

Rock climbing can be both prescriptive and non-prescriptive play used to help children who are suffering from mental disorders. Therapists can watch how children deal with the rock wall obstacles to get an idea what may be affecting their behavior as part of non-prescriptive play. They can use the rock walls as part of prescriptive play to show children that they have a support system and are able to conquer obstacles without disruptive behavior.

About the Author


*Craig Hartman, born in Austin, Texas, is an extreme sports enthusiast and blogger. He works in marketing at Evolve Play. Evolve Play offers a wide range of products and services designed to promote active play, active imaginations and active therapy into any new or existing environment. Products include boulders, portable rock climbing walls, indoor rock climbing walls, and modular climbing panels, all handmade in the United States.

Reviewed by ADDR 6-8-2015 (mm)
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